Malaysians rally against rare-earths plant

Campaign against Australian-owned Lynas facility on country’s east coast draws broad support.

On Saturday, some 20,000 people will arrive in the quiet fishing village of Balok on Malaysia’s east coast. They are not planning to go fishing or laze beneath the sun on the beach.

They are out to make a point – that the rare-earths plant that sits just 7km down the road must be stopped.

When night falls, they will burn an effigy of the plant to emphasise their fierce resistance to a project that they worry will damage their health and the environment.

It is the latest salvo in a long-running struggle against the Australian-owned Lynas facility a campaign that appears now to be entering its final phase.

Throughout, Malaysia’s government has been broadly supportive of the 2.3bn-ringgit project. The Lynas Advanced Materials Plant, as it is officially known, would create hundred of jobs and help alleviate global shortages of the rare earths used in products such as mobile phones and hybrid cars.

But the sustained opposition to the plant has forced officials to add an increasing number of conditions to their approvals, as well as commission additional reports on whether the project should proceed.

The latest report was released on Tuesday – drawn up by a six-member Parliamentary Select Committee that spent two months looking into the issue. Its 100-page report made 31 recommendations relating to the plant, but ultimately gave its backing to the Temporary Operating Licence that the government first approved in February.

The residents, activists and environmentalists campaigning against Lynas say they have no intention of conceding defeat.

They say the plant, which will produce radioactive waste as it processes the raw materials shipped in from Australia, carries too many risks to people’s health and the environment.

Lynas says it is safe and meets all regulatory requirements.

The support base for the long-running struggle is widening as well. Himpunan Hijau and Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas, which have been leading the campaign against Lynas, will be joined in Balok by NGOs from across Malaysia.

Judicial review

Representatives of Bersih, which staged a massive protest for free and fair elections in Kuala Lumpur in April, will address the crowd.

Court actions are also pending. SMSL is calling for a judicial review of the government’s decision to issue the temporary licence. Lynas has resorted to lawyers too – accusing the plant’s opponents of defamation.

Lynas, which is based in Sydney where it is a publicly listed company, claims an “open letter” sent to the prime minister and posted on Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas web site in March included “false”, “damaging” and “defamatory” statements.

An injunction that would effectively prevent the nongovernmental organisation from continuing its campaign will be heard on July 19.

The group’s lawyers say it is the “big boys bullying” and are fighting the case on constitutional grounds, citing Malaysians’ right to freedom of expression.

As the momentum towards the weekend’s events intensifies, there is much at stake – to start with the reputations of Lynas and Malaysia’s government as well as hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment.

But also Malaysians right to freedom of expression, flowering under a series of reforms that have repealed some of the country’s more draconian laws. The fight against Lynas has encouraged once reticent Malaysians to speak out.

A ruling in favour of Lynas at next month’s defamation hearing would put that voice at risk. On a beach in Balok the battle lines are being drawn.

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